POMPANO BEACH, FLA.—Last month, Israeli golfer Zohar Sharon practiced hitting on the driving range at the Palm-Aire Country Club, using a club he’s never used before. Both the club’s golf pro and onlookers at the club were impressed by his 250-yard straight shots. Finally, an admiring spectator approached Sharon and asked him for tips on how to play well.
“Close your eyes,” he said.
He was not joking. The 51-year-old — Israel’s first famous golfer, an artist and a former sharpshooter in the Israeli army — has been blind (and slightly hearing-impaired) since 1979, when his attempt to defuse a bomb during a military exercise went awry. Several years ago, a friend suggested that Sharon, who was working as an artist, masseur and physiotherapist, try putting at home. Soon after, he quit his numerous jobs to pursue golfing full time.
In January, he won the World Blind Golf Championship, as well as competed in myriad tournaments and fund-raisers — against both sighted and blind golfers. Before that, he won first place in the Level 2 Championship at Israel’s Caesarea Golf Club and at the Israeli Pairs Championship against sighted golfers. Sharon’s handicap for the blind golfers is 0, against the sighted it is 36.
Sporting a wide smile and dark sunglasses and accompanied by his guide dog Dylan on the lush course in South Florida, Sharon admitted in an interview with the Forward that he prefers golfing against sighted people. “It’s more fun to beat them,” he said with a laugh.
Sharon had just flown to Florida after participating in a UJA golf fund-raiser in Palm Springs, Calif. The event raised $200,000 for several charities, one of which was the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind. Sharon is close with the center’s president, Norman Leventhal. Shimon Peres’s son works as a veterinarian in the Guide Dog Center’s facility, which has graduated 200 dogs since it began 13 years ago.
According to Leventhal, there are nearly 20,000 blind people in Israel, of whom about 200 own guide dogs. The advantage of the center in Israel is that the dogs are trained in Hebrew and are accustomed to the obstacles unique to Israeli streets, such as the concrete mushrooms on sidewalks that prevent illegal parking.
Sharon, who is from the small town of Aviel near Zichron Yaakov, practices 10 hours every day except Shabbat on Israel’s only substantial golf course, the Caesarea Golf Club. Sharon admits that golfing is not as popular in Israel as other sports. “In Israel it’s thought of as a sport for rich people,” he said. He credits Baron James de Rothschild for building the public course with affordable fees in Caesarea and making it accessible to young people and those of modest means, rather than structuring it as an exclusive club.
Sharon said his experience as a sniper in the Israeli army had helped his golf performance. “I use the same principles I learned as a sniper in my golfing,” he said, explaining that golf requires the same discipline and thought process as sharpshooting. “One must visualize the target. Place the club in the direction of the target. Execute your swing in the most correct manner possible. Hit the ball with your head entirely focused on your target.”
Sharon credits his caddie, Shimshon Levy, for much of his success. Levy sets him up for each hole and adjusts for any errors in direction. Sometimes Sharon needs Levy to make noise in the direction of the hole, and the golfer likens their relationship to that between a navigator and a pilot. “Without a navigator, the pilot is useless. I can’t golf without him,” Sharon said of Levy. “To be a caddie, one must always be number two. He does such hard work, and I’m the one who gets the praise. Without him, I would not be successful. He can tell how I should hit the next ball.”
“The mere fact that he can hit a ball in the dark is admirable,” said Nitsan Watkin, a friend of Sharon’s for 12 years. “On top of that, he’s probably a better golfer than a lot of casual golfers.”
Watkin added that Sharon’s story is inspirational for anyone overcoming obstacles. “He’s always been a positive individual and has a good attitude about everything. He’s been an exceptional person for a long time now. Golf is merely the most recent development in his life.”